Released : 1985
To say the 1980’s was the decade of unconventional pop stars is the grossest of understatements: from Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman to Edie Brickell’s What I Am, those kids who’d spent their adolescences in chess clubs and scout camps kicked the sand from their collective faces and made Kryptonite to the gloss and superficiality of daytime radio.
Thomas Dolby’s contribution was to bring his own brand of geekery – his 1983 hit She Blinded Me With Science even featured the cantankerous Magnus Pyke – but it was as producer on Prefab Sprout’s second album Steve McQueen that he helped make the uncoolest cool record of his career.
From the less than glamorous County Durham, the Sprout had battered away at the charts with When Love Breaks Down, eventually scoring a third time lucky hit, but their debut Swoon had been too intricate and clever for itself to chime much with the public. Singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon later admitted he’d held back his more commercial material for their sophomore effort, from the banjo-toting Faron Young (Penned after he read David Bowie didn’t like country music) to the sophisticated yearning of Appetite.
Dolby’s role to upbraid the tracks whilst resisting the urge to smother them in technological gloss paid huge dividends, as Steve McQueen was a contemporary sounding masterpiece that brimmed with humanity and flawless observation. On Bonny however any sheen was illusory, as over a lonely sounding wind McAloon near-whispers to a melancholic guitar strum, a feather touch making the little crescendoes feel like sighs in an empty room. Asked thirty years later, McAloon revealed that the subject of this letter to grief was his father, but paradoxically it had been written before his death: truly the meek were inheriting a stranger earth.